Tim Farron: A Lib Dem to do business with

While Nick Clegg remains comfortable in coalition with the Tories, the Lib Dem president, Tim Farron, has other ambitions.

When I received an embargoed copy of Nick Clegg’s opening speech to the Liberal Democrat conference, as my train made its way towards Glasgow, one line immediately stood out. The Deputy Prime Minister was soon to refer disparagingly to “some people in our party” who “don’t like us being too nasty to Labour”.

It was an unmistakable reference to my interview with Tim Farron in last week’s New Statesman, in which the Liberal Democrats’ president told me: “I really like Ed Miliband, so I don’t want to diss him. I don’t want join in with the Tories, who compare him to Kinnock.”

Referring to the unsuccessful 2011 Alternative Vote campaign, Farron added: “He wouldn’t share a platform with Nick, so he ended up with me, poor thing. I like the guy.” That Clegg took exception to the comments was not surprising; Miliband has repeatedly suggested that his head would be the price of a future Labour-Lib Dem coalition.

Two hours later, as Clegg walked out on stage, I waited in anticipation for his rebuke to Farron, the darling of the party’s left. But as he approached the relevant passage, the line was softened to “but let’s not be too nasty about Labour”. For the sake of party unity, Clegg retreated from an attack on his most likely successor as leader.

After I broke the news on the NS’s Staggers blog, the party leader’s team politely informed Farron’s staff, who responded with amusement. When the Lib Dem president signals his preference for a coalition with Labour over another with the Conservatives, he does so in the knowledge that he speaks for most of his party’s members. A poll for the grass-roots website Liberal Democrat Voice this month showed that 54 per cent of party activists would prefer a post-2015 alliance with Labour, compared to just 21 per cent for the Tories.

In his own speech earlier that day, Farron, the Lib Dems’ finest platform orator, had spoken ambitiously of his desire to “build and lead a new consensus”, in a resurrection of the pre-2010 language of progressive realignment. Should Labour become the largest party after the next general election but fall short of a majority, he has positioned himself perfectly as a Lib Dem Miliband can do business with.

Tim Farron, President of the Liberal Democrats. Photo: Getty

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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The SNP thinks it knows how to kill hard Brexit

The Supreme Court ruled MPs must have a say in triggering Article 50. But the opposition must unite to succeed. 

For a few minutes on Tuesday morning, the crowd in the Supreme Court listened as the verdict was read out. Parliament must have the right to authorise the triggering of Article 50. The devolved nations would not get a veto. 

There was a moment of silence. And then the opponents of hard Brexit hit the phones. 

For the Scottish government, the pro-Remain members of the Welsh Assembly and Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, the victory was bittersweet. 

The ruling prompted Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, to ask: “Is it better that we take our future into our own hands?”

Ever the pragmatist, though, Sturgeon has simultaneously released her Westminster attack dogs. 

Within minutes of the ruling, the SNP had vowed to put forward 50 amendments (see what they did there) to UK government legislation before Article 50 is enacted. 

This includes the demand for a Brexit white paper – shared by MPs from all parties – to a clause designed to prevent the UK reverting to World Trade Organisation rules if a deal is not agreed. 

But with Labour planning to approve the triggering of Article 50, can the SNP cause havoc with the government’s plans, or will it simply be a chorus of disapproval in the rest of Parliament’s ear?

The SNP can expect some support. Individual SNP MPs have already successfully worked with Labour MPs on issues such as benefit cuts. Pro-Remain Labour backbenchers opposed to Article 50 will not rule out “holding hands with the devil to cross the bridge”, as one insider put it. The sole Green MP, Caroline Lucas, will consider backing SNP amendments she agrees with as well as tabling her own. 

But meanwhile, other opposition parties are seeking their own amendments. Jeremy Corbyn said Labour will seek amendments to stop the Conservatives turning the UK “into a bargain basement tax haven” and is demanding tariff-free access to the EU. 

Separately, the Liberal Democrats are seeking three main amendments – single market membership, rights for EU nationals and a referendum on the deal, which is a “red line”.

Meanwhile, pro-Remain Tory backbenchers are watching their leadership closely to decide how far to stray from the party line. 

But if the Article 50 ruling has woken Parliament up, the initial reaction has been chaotic rather than collaborative. Despite the Lib Dems’ position as the most UK-wide anti-Brexit voice, neither the SNP nor Labour managed to co-ordinate with them. 

Indeed, the Lib Dems look set to vote against Labour’s tariff-free amendment on the grounds it is not good enough, while expecting Labour to vote against their demand of membership of the single market. 

The question for all opposition parties is whether they can find enough amendments to agree on to force the government onto the defensive. Otherwise, this defeat for the government is hardly a defeat at all. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.